Deep inside her paternal grandmother’s closet, behind the leather handbags, the elegant dresses wrapped in dry-cleaner plastic, all giving off a whiff of Guerlain face powder mixed with Chanel perfume, the Guardian writer Hadley Freeman discovered a shoebox covered in years of dust. Its contents deflected her from the fashion piece she had been intending to write about her unsettling, melancholic French grandmother, now dead for some 10 years, and ever out of place in the America where they all lived. Instead, the photos, documents and mysterious fragments the shoebox contained set her off on a quest. It grew into a capacious family story that moves from Poland to France to America and brings to vivid life some of the worst, and perhaps also finest, moments of the 20th century.
Freeman is a determined and eloquent detective. She sifts records, has translations of documents done and travels often with her father to the sites of ancestral life. Above all, she is a splendid creator of character. As she roots around in a past that moves from persecution and the extreme poverty of a Jewish family in the southwestern corner of Poland, to interwar immigrant life in the then unglamorous Marais district of Paris, to the turbulence and death of the war years and beyond, the members of her great and grandparental family take on memorable individuality. What is fascinating to note is that it is some of the forebears she likes least who emerge as distinct heroes.
Principal among these is her great uncle, Alex Maguy, who shares her own interest in fashion and the arts. Maguy changes his name from Sender Glahs, soon after the family’s arrival in Paris from Poland. Name-change is a necessary survival tactic for all Jewish immigrants. He is a pugnacious five-footer, something of a braggadocio, and macho, to boot, quite unlike Henri, his eldest brother – tall, gentle, studious, who looked after the family of five from the age of 13, when the first world war took their scholarly and rather frail father to the front line and against the odds returned him, his lungs so damaged that he died a few years later. Freeman’s grandmother Sala/Sara is the baby. Her mother Chaya, the practical one, is closest to her second son, Jacques, who is the first in the family to leave their small town near Auschwitz for Paris.
It is “tough-like-a-bullet” Alex – the man who in the author’s own childhood boasted of his grand and seemingly improbable connections to Picasso and other greats – who leaves behind the surprise of a memoir in French, unearthed in his sister Sara’s Miami apartment. Precise and evocative in its detail, the memoir gives life to a Stetl (Jewish town) never spoken of in the author’s hearing. It is from its pages that Freeman culls striking first-hand descriptions of the Chrzanow pogrom organised by locals that took place on the night of 5 November 1918, six days before the Great War’s end.
The child Alex remembers hearing the assailants before seeing them: “a savage screaming crowd … attacking animals, wild beasts from the guts of hell. From their distorted snouts came cries of a horrible hatred.” They bludgeon Jews and destroy Jewish shops and synagogues, burning and wreaking havoc. Alex races out on to the street, determined to fight back. Amid the marauding crowd, he recognises his old tutor, town notables, all sectors of local society, alongside peasants from the countryside. “Something in me died in the face of this inhuman explosion of savagery,” he writes. The town’s Jews were left trembling and destitute.
Freeman’s passion at the barbarity and injustice of antisemitism echoes Alex’s own. Her book, written in the shadow of Trump and Brexit, as well as an ungovernable alt-right virtual sphere, underlines the repetitive and irrational nature of an antisemitic blight, often cynically spread by exploitative leaders. The tropes of prejudice slide over into the treatment of immigrants, refugees and foreigners. Freeman underlines that we need, once more, urgently to learn the lessons of this tragic history.
That said, it is the particularities of individual trajectories, the way luck and fate deal so singularly with her family, that make Freeman’s story so gripping. Too little is known of the lives of Jewish immigrants in interwar France – an early destination for many from eastern Europe and subsequently from Germany. By the late 1930s, Paris had the third-largest Jewish community in the world, after Warsaw and New York. Alex Maguy’s rise from the impoverished first stop of the Marais and its tailoring establishments to the dizzying world of fashion and couture, and its sometime neighbour the art world, is as riveting as that of a Balzacian hero making his way from the provinces to the summit of Paris. The subsequent fall is equally, if not more, dramatic.
On the outbreak of the second world war, a patriotic Alex joined the French Foreign Legion, the only service open to foreigners, and so oversubscribed by refugees from the Spanish civil war that it was difficult to get in. Connections, already a factor in his life, were necessary, but this small, “heavily perfumed” man made it in, and fought bravely in the Norwegian Campaign, one of the biggest battles since the Nazi invasion of Poland. When his division joined the Free French in Britain, he chose to immerse himself in the fray once more and return to Paris to help his relatives. The country was now at the mercy of the Nazis and the anti-Jewish laws they and their French collaborators had put in place.
Freeman follows her family through the ordeal of the occupation and its antisemitic regime: the roundups, the dangerous choice of assimilation, masquerade and hiding, the horror of French detention camps and deportation, and the tragic ruptures that death but also survival can bring.
As for her grandmother Sara’s American odyssey, engineered by Alex to save his elegant little sister (like him, she adored Paris) from deportation and probable death, you will have to read this heartfelt book to engage with it. Like its title, House of Glass signals the precariousness of the condition both Jews and immigrants suffer into our own time. Yet the story Freeman tells is above all a tribute to human bravery and endurance against the odds. Death may be hideously inventive, but so too is the human spirit.
Lisa Appignanesi is the author of Everyday Madness
•House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family is published by HarperCollins (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15